Marc Lintern, Director of
Newcastle University Careers Service, shares his personal story of first impressions that should make any recruiter think twice.
It’s August 2013, I am at a beach barbeque in Corfu and the man next to me is grinning. “You must get called Heston all the time” he says, holding out his hand. “My name’s Vincent, it’s good to meet you”.
Looking at Vincent I wonder what he means. Nobody has ever called me Heston before. But he looks sincere and he’s being friendly, so I think about his question.
And it dawns on me.
I have lost my hair. And now, with my heavy rimmed glasses and rounded features, I look like … Heston Blumenthal.
Holding out my hand I grin back. “Absolutely” I say. “People call me Heston all the time. I even taught him how to cook, although he never talks about that”.
Five months earlier
On 24 March 2013 I was told I had cancer. The date sticks in my mind because it was two days before my daughter’s 18th birthday and we were due to meet at the weekend in London to celebrate.
Vincent didn’t know I had cancer when he laughingly called me Heston, and neither did the countless others who did the same during the summer months that I was undergoing chemotherapy.
Everyone assumed I had simply lost my hair and that I enjoyed a cheeky comparison to a celebrity chef.
However, they weren’t the only ones making assumptions.
Sean was one of the toughest looking men I have ever seen. Late twenties, tattoos, slicked back dark hair cut tight into his neck and five days of dirty stubble.
Dressed for a night out in a tough city centre bar in Sunderland, rather than an evening in Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, when Sean walked into my ward just before midnight I pretended to be asleep.
But once his nurse had gone it was clear my cover was blown. Sean looked over and said hello. He knew I was awake.
“What are you in for?” asked Sean. “What type of cancer do you have?”
“Testicular” I reply. “Same as you”.
Understanding now why I have never been head hunted by MI6, I feel fortunate that Sean seems oblivious to my eaves dropping and instead wants to know more about me. How long have I been in? Did I have children? How old was I? How did I find out?
The ice broken and starting to melt, we start to share information and anecdotes, comrades in adversity.
And then, out of nowhere, comes Sean’s surprise.
“What did you do when you found out?”
I have to think about this. Do I tell Sean that I phoned my wife? That she had cried? That I was worried about who would pick up my son from school?
Instead I ask Sean the same question.
“I phoned my closest mates and asked them to come around. And when they arrived I got them to feel my gnarly testicle, as I wanted them to know what testicular cancer feels like. In case they get it too. I wanted them to know what to feel for. For twenty four hours before I was diagnosed I had laid on the floor at home in agony and had no idea what was the cause. I didn’t want my mates to wait like me before getting things checked out. It was the least I could do!”
It might have been the least Sean could do, but it was more than I had considered.
And so now I am in awe.
Sean. Tough Sean. The man I was nervous of little over an hour ago is in fact, a saint.
I am so taken aback that when Sean asks me whether testicular cancer has affected my sex drive, I tell him.
Back to work
Three years on and back at work, my evening with Sean has hopefully changed me. A bit.
The night Sean walked into the Freeman Hospital I made assumptions about him, and it was only because we had a few hours to kill that I went beyond my thirty second rule and found I was wrong.
I would like to say that this was a one off. That I don’t make assumptions based on a person’s accent, their tattoos or their haircut. But like everyone else I do this all of the time.
And I do this because when I first meet somebody I don’t know their back story. So, like a CV with missing information, I fill in the gaps. And then, when I meet someone like Sean, it reminds me that first impressions never tell the whole story.
Unfortunately in our busy lives we often don’t have the luxury of time which I had with Sean, and because we are time limited we make quick decisions. And in our professional lives this means that we can misjudge potential hires or people we can do business with, because we make a quick decision and then justify in our minds why we have done this.
Behind our decisions, and often unconsciously, we are drawn to people like ourselves. Anybody else can take their chances. If we give them one.
The best chance I got from 2013 was a clean bill of health and three years on my cancer is at bay. I am back to normal. Except with my full head of hair I no longer draw comparison with the great Heston Blumenthal – unless I am in the kitchen!
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